Climate Change Driving Stronger El Niño Years

Image: Accuweather. Click here to read more about how El Niño is formed.

During an El Niño event, the surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean become significantly warmer than normal which can lead to extreme weather patterns across the world but especially along the Western Pacific coast. Here at home, this means an abundance of rain and storms to California and the southwestern U.S. While these weather patterns already bring uncertainly now, as USA Today reported, a new study predicts that in the future, continued warming over the western Pacific as a result of climate change promises conditions that will trigger more extreme El Niño events. 

The Science: For the study, scientists examined 33 El Niños since 1901. What they found was since the 1970s, El Niño has changed its origination from the eastern Pacific to the western Pacific causing increasingly strong El Niño events due to background warming in the western Pacific Ocean.

The El Niño Cycle: As National Geographic explained, the other half of the El Niñ0 phenomenon is generally called “La Niña.” It’s basically the opposite of an El Niño: Ocean temperatures along the eastern half of the tropical Pacific cool down and that part of the world dries out.

What Are the Risks? During particularly strong El Niño years the effects on ecosystems and people alike can be devastating: endless rain can cause deadly mudslides, corals die off as a result of warmer waters and fisheries can collapse from the shock of changing water. Damages to cities and towns can top billions of dollars. Additionally, as Science Daily described,

  • Past strong El Niño events have caused severe droughts in the western Pacific Islands and Australia, leading to extensive wildfires and famine, while dangerous flooding from excessive rainfall have plagued northern coasts of South America.

Why This Matters: Wetter El Niño years and dryer and hotter La Niña years can have deadly impacts for communities across the world. Additionally, they will affect poorer communities the most as they don’t have the necessary resources to prepare for extreme weather and to recover after it occurs. I (Miro) still vividly remember the 1997 El Niño in Northern California. It meant that several of my classmates couldn’t make it to school for days on end because extreme flooding turned their streets into rivers. Entire roads washed away and the heart of our local economy (viticulture) came under threat. We were lucky as we had resources to recover but many others won’t be able to sustain these intensifying weather shocks.

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